16
The Citadel
Kliff invited Anton to his basement room to sample his array of exotic powders. As they sat on the bed inhaling the shimmering, multicolored crystals, he explained that the building they lived in was connected to the ones around it by a series of underground passageways. With certain tricks, it was possible to negotiate these tunnels for several blocks without returning to the surface. He was the caretaker of this hidden realm.
"Every so often I notice an opening I never saw before, and the possibilities multiply. Can you imagine? There might be three or four more openings off of that. It could go on forever. There's a rumor that some of these tunnels connect to ancient Rome."
He suggested a little tour. As they dodged cobwebbed pipes and piles of rubble, the flashlight beam bobbed wildly. They squeezed through a hole in the wall to pass from one room to another. Anton saw crates of all shapes and sizes stacked in the corners, and Kliff let him open a few. He got glimpses of Sumerian burial relics, extraterrestrial manuscripts, paintings by Italian masters believed lost. Apparently their building was part of a network for concealing and transporting such artifacts.
They came to a room with a stiff-backed wooden chair that looked like an electric chair, on account of its metal headrest and leather straps. Kliff switched on a red ceiling light.
"This is the takeoff point. Do you want music? We've got Frank Sinatra, Metallica, Gregorian chant...."
"Where are we going?"
"The Citadel. The home base. This is your first time, so you need the treatment." He gestured to Anton to take a seat. Seeing that Anton was hesitating, he said, "Don't you trust me?" Anton sat in the chair.
Kliff adjusted the straps with a series of rapid movements. "There'll be a brief moment of panic, but that's part of the thrill." He went to a medicine cabinet against the wall, pulled out a drawer, and rummaged around. When he came back, he held a razor blade in his hand. He stepped behind Anton and grabbed his head.
Anton struggled against the straps. "What are you doing?" Kliff slit his throat.
Metallica blared on a cheap cassette player, or was it Frank Sinatra singing "My Way"? Kliff was at the cabinet again, opening all the drawers and tossing things out. "Damn, there's blood everywhere. Gotta stitch you up. But where'd I put the thread?" He turned back with what looked like a chicken baster. "Okay, I'll use this."
Numbers flashed before Anton's eyes in groups of four: 0127, 2039, 6811, 4212. He heard a voice. "Repeat the first number you see that starts with three. When the third number is six, say 'Stop.'"
They were running together, hand in hand, down a corridor that went on forever. They dodged men with briefcases who kept popping out of doorways and scurrying across their path, only to disappear into other doorways that slammed shut. The slamming formed an intricate rhythm.
They were in a bullet train in a long, metallic tunnel. Bands of light flashed past the windows at regular intervals. The train moved so fast that the walls of the tunnel resonated with a crystalline tone that was eerie and beautiful. There was no feeling of movement at all.
They climbed a metal ladder to the roof of a run-down tenement. Someone was behind them in pursuit, and there were shouts in the street below. It took all of Anton's strength to pull himself onto the roof. Kliff was ahead of him, and helped him up. They ran from rooftop to rooftop, dodging vent pipes and clotheslines, leaping the low walls between buildings. There was still someone chasing them. At the end of the block they stared down into the street. Kliff grabbed his arm and yelled, "Jump!"
They were sitting on a couch in a windowless reception area, with copies of Vibe and Excite on the table in front of them. "The Colonel will see you in a few minutes," said the receptionist. She closed the door behind her, leaving them alone.
"Like I said, it can be a little rough the first time," Kliff apologized.
They waited, saying nothing because there was nothing to say. Anton flipped through the magazines. He looked at Kliff, who shrugged. Finally Reinhold came to the door and called Anton inside. Kliff remained in the waiting room.
The Colonel's office was so vast that its details were lost in the distance. Outside the windows were fire and ice, snowy mountains, comets and suns. The floor was a dark, shimmering substance. Somewhere in the middle of the room, couches and tables were arranged on a carpeted island. Reinhold was there, though he'd just opened the door.
As Anton approached, Reinhold seemed to recede with each step. Finally he reached the carpet and took his place next to the Colonel. He accepted a cigarette, and the light that quickly followed. Reinhold put the lighter back in his pocket. He was already smoking.
"Welcome to the inner sanctum," Reinhold said. "See what persistence will get you? Now what do you want?"
Anton was surprised by the chilly tone, so he decided to show that he wasn't intimidated. "I know the rule of force you subscribe to. I know you have armed men backing you up if necessary. I know that many of your interests would be seen as criminal if they were in the public eye. I don't hold it against you, and I hope you won't hold it against me that I brought it up. I just want both of us to be clear on where things stand, what I'm aware of."
"There's more to it than you know."
"Of course there is."
"I don't think you realize the extent of your ignorance."
"I came here to learn."
"You're not the type we teach this sort of thing. You can't just walk in here—"
"I just did."
Reinhold flicked the ash from his cigarette. "You don't understand. Now that you're here, I have to find a way to get rid of you."
Anton felt a chill. "Why bring me here in the first place?"
"It was an error. Kliff overstepped his authority."
"Then we've got a problem. Fortunately, there's more than one way to resolve this. I'm inviting you to bring me in further, show me the ropes. Don't you think it's better that way?"
"I'm talking about destroying you, wiping you out. Where else can this conversation go?"
"We can be friends," Anton said with stunning innocence.
"What have you done to earn my friendship? I'm more powerful than you can ever imagine."
"I have a moral authority you might find useful."
"You mean we can use each other?"
"I mean you can use me."
"What do you want from it?"
"For you to use me!"
Reinhold was standing now, back turned, his long frame slanted against a barrage of digital snow. Specks of apricot, lavender, and sage flickered across one wall of the vaultlike room. He found this relaxing. From the trapezoid shape he was at that angle, came his verdict.
"You corrupted my messenger, Kliff, and seduced him into bringing you here. I should have him killed, and you too. In the old days, I would have had you roasted over a slow flame. But this is the era of tolerance and compassion, all the newspapers say so." He turned and winked. "So I'll be generous and punish you only lightly." He put his hand on Anton's shoulder. "Come. The evening's entertainment is almost ready."
They followed a long corridor lined with bark and moss. Sexual moans were in the air, and a distant flute. A butterfly fluttered past. At the end of the passage a door slid open, and closed behind them. A platform revolved slowly beneath their feet, locking in place again with a metallic clank. The atmosphere changed in a way that Anton couldn't describe, but it made him feel giddy.
"I've removed all the nitrogen," Reinhold said. "It's so unnecessary."
Another portal slid open, and they stepped onto a balcony overlooking a circular theater. Below them in the center of the room was a stage in deep crimson, on which a grand piano stood ready. The curved walls were the same crimson color. Arcs of terraced seats faced each other, with cocktail bars and space for dancing in between.
A lizard boy with pale green skin, pointy ears, and slit nostrils appeared at their side, offering drinks on a polished tray. He was naked except for a loincloth, and his nipples were deep blue. The cocktails he served, amber with shifting blue patterns and a thin layer of foam, were familiar to Anton. They were the same ones Peter had served at the Salon des Assassins.
He looked to the bar and saw Peter behind it. Peter acknowledged them with a half wave, half salute. The lizard boy pressed against them in a suggestive way as he slithered off. Reinhold put a hand on Anton's elbow and guided him toward the stage.
"Where's Kliff?" Anton asked. "I hope he isn't still waiting for us back in the reception area."
The Colonel laughed. "He'll know where to find us. Right now he's busy with a client. He'll be along later, before the show starts."
The way in which Reinhold said "client" made Anton uneasy. He knew that Kliff had served in the Colonel's harem long ago, and he wondered if that was still true. He felt betrayal and disgust, and a surge of desire for Kliff. Confused, he sipped his drink.
They sat together in the front row, on a red velvet couch. Others were arriving now, but their forms remained vague, as if obscured by a gauzy curtain. The Colonel bantered about life and morality until the show started.
"We're brought up to believe there's no such thing as redemption. Virginity, this mystery, this gift, can only be lost once. The sinner is banished forever from the eyes of the Lord. A man who walks on the wrong side of the law is branded a criminal. He isn't fit company for lawful folk, meaning those who haven't been caught. Some people believe even the smallest slip of fate is enough to send a man down the road of perversity, of sin. Well, let them think that. That's not how it works. A man can get away with anything if he's willing to live without scruples. On the other hand, we're animal creatures, and once we're past our prime, our bodies start to decay. The enchantments of youth turn into habits we keep going back to, in the hope of recapturing the lost thrill. So no one's a virgin forever, son. After a while, there's no virginity left to lose."
Anton wrinkled his nose. "It's all tacky."
"It's all tacky," Reinhold laughed, giving him a friendly pat on the back.
Anton drew one knee up under his chin. "How can I get to be forty and still feel noble?"
Surprisingly, Reinhold had an answer. "Whatever compromises you make, admit them to yourself. Shame yourself with them. Force yourself to see with the eyes of the child you once were. How would you have seemed to him, cruel and virtuous as he was? Would he feel compassion for you, or contempt? Imagine the contempt he would feel for the creature you've become, and carry that feeling inside you. Maybe then you'll understand what charity is. It's a conspiracy among us humans to forgive each other a bit, to reduce our standards to acceptable levels. It's shameful, sordid, and vulgar, but it's the only way. Because there's never been a pure human in history. Not once has a hero held out to the limit of his strength."
Anton was troubled by these words. If life was sordid and vulgar as Reinhold claimed, then virtue was nothing but wishful thinking, the sign of a weak mind. To live in such conditions, he saw only two choices. He could either forgive himself for failing to meet his own standards, or throw virtue to the winds as Reinhold did. Neither felt right to him. It would be better to destroy himself, and leave the world with his purity intact. Reinhold smiled, as if aware of his thoughts.
The cabaret was full now. The lights dimmed, the conversation hushed and died. There was movement on the stage. A spotlight came up on a sultry figure in a red dress, reclining on the piano with a hand on her hip. With a shock, Anton realized it was the Blues Singer. Her character was so perfect, he could no longer recognize Sabrina in it. Tinkling the keys was Big Joe, barman and truck smuggler. Despite his resemblance to Lenin, Big Joe was an accomplished pianist. His soulful harmonies washed over them now.
The Blues Singer's voice was like a flower opening, exposing its secrets. It offered its colors and scents, its nectar and pollen. An aroma of apricots and roses floated through the room. Her husky tone made the air seem smoky, the edges of things indistinct. It tingled the nerves and left the emotions in a state of longing, of expectation.
Like the ocean to the river,
Like the flower to the bee,
My heart whispers to you,
Come to me.
Pulled into the Blues Singer's vortex, people rose from their seats and moved hypnotically toward the stage. They danced together in pairs, barely moving. Anton realized that the Colonel was gone. He could remember the tall form standing, the silent departure, but he'd been too caught up in the music to notice.
He began to make out faces in the crowd. In the seats across from him, a young man with a shock of dirty blond hair leaned back, laughing. His companion reached across him in a tight-fitting dress to feed him a candied cherry. She was long and coffee colored, with bleached hair past her shoulders that might be a wig. Anton wondered if she was a tall and athletic woman, or a man. The one laughing, he was sure, was the actor Rafe Lynes, an action hero who was often described as the sexiest man alive.
He recognized a network news anchor who sat with his arms spread over the back of his seat, a clean-cut youth on either side of him. They were congressional page boy types, almost identical in blue blazers and preppy haircuts. They competed to see who could fawn over their celebrity catch more slavishly. The newsman had his shirt open, eyes rolled back in his head, and seemed caught up in his own private ecstasy.
Another face seemed familiar, though he had trouble placing it. The man was in his mid-forties, with curly hair and lips clenched in a thin, straight line. Like Anton he was sitting alone. He had a hard look in his eyes, and returned Anton's gaze without blinking. With a start, Anton realized it was Vince's drug connection, an activist who had often come to rallies back in the Trashtown days. Perhaps they'd exchanged a few words back then, but Anton had never felt comfortable around him. He tried to hide his nervousness because the man's gaze was still on him. What was Vince's heroin dealer doing at the Citadel? He must be one of the Colonel's agents, possibly one of the ones Sabrina called the referees.
He began scanning the rows deliberately, wondering what other familiar faces he might find. Périne the photographer? The minister of the New Jerusalem Chapel? Squinting, he noticed a rotund gentleman several rows up, twitching his eyebrows repeatedly as the lizard boy leaned over him, telling a story. The boy had one hand on the man's thigh, while the other waved in the air to punctuate his tale. The man shifted his weight heavily, grunting with pleasure, as he took notes on a stenographer's pad he held on his knee.
Suddenly Anton placed him. It was the unemployed professor who had been with him on the bus to Portland when he left home. The old fool had tried to get him to talk about his family, his ambitions, his reasons for traveling to the city. Apparently this man, too, worked for Reinhold. So even before arriving in Portland, he'd been watched. He had no desire to examine this, he felt only a blind rage.
He was about to get up and walk out, when his eyes fell on Kliff. Kliff was directly behind him, about three rows back, which was why Anton hadn't seen him before. He was with his client, a decrepit old man who seemed to be rotting. The man's white hair was falling out in places. One side of his face drooped because it was paralyzed. Deep lines of debauch ran down his cheeks. One hand was inside Kliff's shirt, the other on Kliff's neck.
Kliff straddled the man's leg, his back to Anton. His hand was pressed into the man's crotch, where it was busy unfastening his belt. He moistened the man's ear with his breath, planting love bites. Infatuated, the man had red spots on his cheeks and chuckled a little, his mouth a loose purple hole. Reinhold stood above and behind them on the balcony, watching everything.
Anton turned away as if he'd been slapped. The Blues Singer was still there, weaving her spell, but he heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. He'd been short circuited. He was bristling, throwing off sparks. After a while the feeling faded. Perhaps Reinhold had left the room.
Someone plopped onto the seat next to him, a lanky, dark-complected lad with long, wavy hair. He wore his shirt half open. The tooth of a carnivore hung around his neck. "I hear you're a rock star in your other life." His smile was dazzling white.
"Who the fuck are you?"
"I'm Dario. Want a joint?" He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled one out. "You don't want to talk about your career just now?"
"I'm on vacation."
"I hear that." Dario lit the joint, sucked in, gestured to the stage. "She's fabulous, huh? My head's in a whirl."
The music started to register again, cooling Anton's anger a little. She was fabulous, he had to admit. He grinned, relieved he still could.
"You ever do shotguns?" Dario inhaled again, more deeply this time. He leaned forward to give Anton a smoky kiss.
After the applause and the flowers, the Blues Singer waved to her admirers and left the stage. The house lights came up, and people mingled at the bar. Anton saw Reinhold talking to Vince's heroin dealer, who nodded, arms crossed on his chest. Kliff passed in front of them with his client, leading him tenderly by the hand, gazing up with moist eyes at the decrepit old man who leaned on him for support. They shuffled along slowly to a door by the bar, where they disappeared.
"Hey!" Dario snapped his fingers under Anton's nose. He put a hand on Anton's neck and stroked it gently. "What's up, man?"
Anton looked in his eyes and was lost there a moment. He gave a weak grin and looked away.
Dario gestured with his head to the door Kliff had passed through. "That your boyfriend?"
Anton felt a mix of guilt and pleasure. He'd never thought of Kliff as his boyfriend before. "I guess you could say that."
"Only tonight he's with some creepy guy"—Dario shivered comically—"and here you are, stranded. You wanna do it with me, Anton? Or you gonna sleep alone tonight?"
Anton looked him over. Had Reinhold put him up to this? He felt overwhelmed, tired of everything. For once he wanted to surrender, allow himself to be led.
"Wanna see my playroom? It's well equipped." Dario held out his hand and pulled Anton to his feet. Throwing an arm around Anton's shoulders, he guided him to the door where Kliff had just disappeared. His free hand teased Anton's chest, drawing him close. He ran down the possibilities his playroom offered, and some of the wild adventures he'd had there. "I came eighteen times in one night. Can you imagine? Man, what a life!"
• • •
Anton woke to a synthetic tone like a plucked string. He was in a narrow bed, and he was alone. The pinging seemed to be coming from a video screen opposite, which was blank. A mechanical voice spoke every so often. "Please respond. Press the green button. Please respond."
He sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes. He reached over and pressed the green button. The screen illuminated, revealing a fresh-faced young woman with auburn hair. "Good morning, Anton! Your presence is requested in the Council Chamber in one hour."
"Huh?" He stared blearily at the screen. He assumed the woman could see him, though there was no camera in view.
She laughed gently, aware he was new to the Citadel. "The Colonel's Advisory Council meets twice weekly at 10:00 a.m. He'd like you to come to today's meeting." The tone of her voice made it clear this was an honor.
He looked around him. He was in a small room that contained the bed where he was sitting, the video screen opposite, a writing area, a dressing area, and a sink. His shirt and pants were thrown over the back of the only chair. At one end of the room was a circular window with a view of mountains and rivers, which he assumed was fake. At the other end was an automatic door, over which were the words, "Sleeping Pod D-204."
"If you turn right when you leave your pod," the woman was saying, "you'll find the company mess hall at the end of the corridor. You can get breakfast there before the meeting. If you need directions to the Council Chamber, just ask your service person. Your pod comes with many automated features. You probably won't have time to use them now, but if you want an idea, press the Guide button on your monitor. Okay?"
"Okay, thanks." The screen went blank.
In a cabinet over the sink he found everything he needed to wash up. He would have liked to take a shower after the previous night's adventures, but there was none in the room and he didn't feel like going out to look for one. As he ran hot water over his face and neck, he remembered his time in Dario's playroom. Dario had been tender and passionate, imaginative and willing. He seemed well adjusted to life at the Citadel. He lived here full time, apparently, making occasional visits to his family, who thought he was in the military, or to tourist spots like Paris and Beijing.
After they'd done all they could think of together, they'd lain for a long time exhausted, lost in each other's scent and breathing. Finally Dario had collected his thoughts enough to flash Anton a smile and say, "Let's go to bed." They'd put on their clothes and stumbled, numb with sensation, through dim corridors to the pod where Anton was now. "This is for you," Dario had said, giving him a long kiss. "I hope you stick around a while. I hope we do it again."
Anton studied himself in the mirror. With his funky necklace, weird hairstyle, and exotic clothes, he looked ready for any adventure. He didn't know what sort of dress code Reinhold had in mind for the Advisory Council, but this would have to do. If only he could wake up. With all the ruckus he'd made with Dario, he hadn't gotten much sleep. He was sure he would find coffee in the company mess, but he needed something more.
He noticed a small bottle next to the toothpaste and shampoo. He picked it up and studied it. "The Colonel's Special Infusion." There was even a little silhouette of the Colonel. That was cute. "Instantly restores clarity, drive and endurance, without harm to bodily systems." It seemed worth a try. He swallowed the contents. It worked! Feeling refreshed, he put his palm on the sensor as Dario had showed him, and the door slid open.
The corridor led past a long series of numbered doors like his own, opening finally into a cafeteria that served as hub, with several other corridors radiating from it. Only a few people were scattered in the vast expanse, but there was room for several hundred. A circular area at the center had all kinds of delicious things on display.
He walked up and made his selection, choosing goat cheese and olives and garlic toast, granola with yogurt and strawberries, a cinnamon bun and dark roasted coffee. He asked the service person for an omelet with gruyere cheese, turkey sausage, and green apples, just to see if that would throw her off. She said it was no problem. It would be prepared and brought to his table in a few minutes.
He drifted among the tables looking for a spot that pleased him. He saw Kliff waving to him from far off, so he headed in that direction. Kliff had papers and binders spread out on the table, and was absorbed in making notes. Anton put down his tray and asked, "Are you going to the Advisory Council too?"
Kliff took a drag from his cigarette and looked up. "So he invited you? That's good. I told him he should." He studied his notes briefly, making a few jots. "I don't always go myself, but when I'm in town, so to speak...." He smiled apologetically. "I'm just a scout among many, but the Colonel and I go way back. Which gives me a certain rank."
Anton was happy to be reunited with Kliff, but it reminded him of Kliff's client from the night before. The eagerness with which Kliff had accepted the man's advances made him feel ill. "That guy you were with. How could you let a man like that seduce you?"
"He didn't seduce me. I seduced him."
"You weren't exactly fighting it. You were fawning all over him."
"He's a client! That's my profession."
"I didn't think you did that stuff any more."
"We each have our specialties. What Reinhold needs us for, we do. As it happens, he needs this guy for an important project. He's a banker from Austria, extremely rich and well connected. He knows the diplomatic crowd, and people in the Vatican. He used to go skiing with the Pope when they were younger. And I'm happy to say, I got him on board. The Colonel's happy, our Austrian friend's happy, everyone's happy."
"I'm not happy. Not really."
"Believe it or not, you're not the only one who matters around here. Do you regret the time you spent with Dario?"
Anton looked sheepish. "You know about that?"
"They say he's better than I am at certain things. Too bad I haven't had a chance to sample his skills for myself. I might learn something."
Anton grinned.
"So you don't regret it, do you? Just figure my client gave you the opportunity."
The omelet arrived, and Anton began to dig into it. Kliff took an olive from Anton's tray. Liking it, he took another.
"I know you have liaisons," Anton told him. "I'm not jealous about that. Actually I am, but this is an extreme case." He remembered the man's purple mouth, the red spots of excitement on his ravaged cheeks. "Where's your dignity, man? That dude is evil. He acted you like you belong to him, like you're his favorite shirt or something. And you encouraged it. You actually liked it!"
"It's called the art of seduction."
"Did you have to let him treat you like he owns you? Like you're his slave?"
"Nobody owns me, Anton."
"Not even Reinhold?"
"Nobody. My mother wouldn't recognize me today. My daddy's dead. I've made it on my own since I was seven. Can you imagine what I've been through? Can you imagine what I've done from time to time to get a bite of food, a room in from the rain? I'm lucky that along the way I've made a few friends, people who've showed me how to survive. How it's done in society, how it's done in the world."
Anton toyed with the food on his plate. He had no business questioning the choices Kliff made to survive. Kliff saw the world as predatory and cruel, and he had to agree. Yet the Austrian banker disgusted him more than the rest. No doubt he was afraid of ending up that way himself, pathetic and clinging, living on others' heat once his own had vanished.
"I'd rather die young than get old and ugly," he announced.
"We'll never get old. I can see it in your eyes."
Anton gave him a sharp look. "You mean we'll die young?"
Kliff shook his head and grinned. "Haven't you heard about cloning, cellular rejuvenation, digital transfer of consciousness? If you can't make your old body young again, move to a new one. It works. I've seen it. Rich people today use these techniques."
Anton thought he was being mocked. "You know people who've been rejuvenated, or transferred to a new body?"
Kliff clapped his hands as if he'd caught Anton dozing. "Don't you get it? Look around you! We're immortal, you and me." He laughed at Anton's astonishment. "We're gonna live forever, dude. We are hooked up!"
It was time for their meeting. They followed a series of passageways until they came to a red circular door. "Security checkpoint," said a voice. The door began glowing, pulsing slowly. "We will scan your DNA. Unauthorized persons will be incinerated."
A video screen lit up, showing someone on a catwalk. The man stopped and looked around him in panic. There was a flash of light, a scream, and his form turned incandescent. A moment later, the catwalk was empty. The door opened, revealing the same catwalk, cutting across a mirrored sphere.
They crossed the sphere in a flood of light. Anton felt his molecules tingle, then relax. A second door opened in front of them, revealing a room full of annoyed faces. They were late, and the Colonel had already begun his presentation.
Seated among the rows of Reinhold's aides, Anton recognized Mitch, Sabrina's operative from Tucson, and Peter and Cybele from the Salon des Assassins. At the large central table was Sabrina herself, and next to her was Vince's drug dealer, moving his jaw slowly as if chewing gum. The corpulent professor was also there, and numerous others Anton didn't know. One was dressed like a Buddhist monk, another had the air of a Latin American actress or socialite. There was even a freckle-faced kid.
The Colonel interrupted himself to acknowledge their arrival. "If it isn't our young rock star, Anton Dupree. This is Anton's first time at the Citadel, so perhaps we should forgive him this breach of protocol." He gestured them to seats near where he was standing.
"Anton, I want you to meet my referees. Sabrina, I think you know. A woman whose talents defy commentary. Johnny Champion, perhaps you've met too. His specialty is international commerce. The kid here, we call Kennedy. He's older than he looks, but he makes a very realistic twelve-year-old." Kennedy stuck out his tongue at the Colonel. "Lobsang Dorje keeps us connected to the celestial plane, which can be useful in a crunch. The Professor used to be in charge of our Heartland District, but around the time you got to Portland, he won a promotion. Graciela Morales is our goodwill ambassador. Ask her if you want tips on shoes or hats." After finishing the introductions, he summed up proudly, "I'd say there's not a government in the world, clandestine or otherwise, that has this kind of diversity."
He turned to the giant video screen behind him, which was frozen on the image of an airplane cockpit. "Now back to business. Two minutes to impact. As you can see here, this flash of light"—he pointed and the light blossomed as if on cue—"comes from within the control panel itself. How did it get there? Kennedy?"
"Investigators don't have a clue."
"I have a feeling we know something they don't."
"We had a specialist on the inside. He slipped a micro-explosive into the wiring."
"How is our technician friend, by the way?"
"We got him safely to Niger. He's with our mining interests there."
"And among the victims...?"
"The Minister of the Interior, and two top-ranking generals."
"Fast forward to the aftermath of the crash." The video skipped ahead as he turned to his aides. "What wasn't found at the scene?"
"Biological agent," said a young woman with severe glasses.
"Excellent. What type of agent?"
"A nerve agent that destroys reasoning ability, but leaves motor functions intact."
"Tell us more."
"Its victims are docile and easily led. They only act under stimulus. If there is food in front of them and they are hungry, they will eat. They can perform simple tasks."
"Not something you'd want to fall into the wrong hands, which explains the secrecy surrounding its transport. Luckily for us, the first people to get to the crash site were local nomads. And they found a little box."
The screen showed a desert landscape, a caravan of camels. Tribesmen moved through chunks of steaming metal scattered over a wide area. A nomad in a headscarf and long robes whistled to his comrades, holding the prize aloft.
"It survived the crash because of its heat-resistant materials. Our challenge now is to get that box to where we need it. And we have to move quickly, because its original owners know it hasn't gone far."
He opened the floor to debate, and several options were discussed. In the end, they settled on Johnny Champion's plan. People in the room were given assignments, and the Colonel moved on to the next topic.
"Let's discuss the political situation in the Midwest. We have a new political party there. Anne, would you give us the rundown?"
Anne Priestly, an older woman who resembled a librarian, seemed an unlikely candidate to be a referee, but then most of them did.
"The goal of the Unity Party is to unite. We unite Christians concerned about family values with conspiracy theorists afraid of secret government. We unite farmers, labor activists, and disaffected youth. Our message to all these groups is that elections are the worst form of government. When you have an election, somebody loses. We've got to change that. You never know what you're getting with a politician, but you know it's not the truth. If God were running things, we wouldn't need government. We need a system like they have in the military, where the best people rise to the top. If you've got the best people already, why have elections? You're only going to get somebody worse."
She took a sip from her water glass. "We're running candidates for low-profile offices in Omaha, such as the school board and county commission. We'll use those positions as a platform to make our case. We want to replace elections with a volunteer system. Let everyone do what they're best at. No more meddlesome bureaucrats. Schools will be run by the parents, hospitals by doctors and nurses, highways by the commuters who use them. The people's business is too important to leave to politicians. Let's take it back! Once we're established in Omaha, we'll spread out across the Great Plains. We'll be in Denver, St. Louis, Cincinnati in a few years' time. Before long, elections will be obsolete across the Midwest. We'll have Unity again!"
Her glasses flashed, her hand formed a fist. Was she a clever propagandist or a fanatic? Her speech was laced with slogans she seemed to believe.
To Anton's surprise, Reinhold called on him next. "Anton, you're a youth leader. You're an agitator for change. Best of all, you're from the Midwest. The Unity Party is happening in your backyard. What's your take on this?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "I don't think much about politics. At least not in this way."
"Come on, give it a shot."
He turned to Anne Priestly. "You've got some nice slogans there, but it feels like a power grab, a slow-motion takeover. It might be clever, but it's not very honest. Why do we have to work in the shadows here at the Citadel? Let's bring it out in the open. What we need is a revolution. A real revolution, not one of these prepackaged ones."
Glances were exchanged among the referees, and Johnny Champion mocked him with a smirk. "Just you wait, boy," Champion seemed to be saying.
Reinhold stepped in. "Our plan is pretty revolutionary, don't you think? What other political party says elections are a waste of time?"
"Are you looking for my endorsement or something? Then sure, why not? We're living in a fantasy world here at the Citadel. Why not spin fantasies in the real world, too?"
"That's my boy," said the Colonel.
• • •
That evening, Reinhold took him on a double date with Paco and Enrique. The sons of disappeared political prisoners from Argentina, they were into extreme slave play such as branding and electrocution. They were a rare find, a mutation, hard-wired to interpret pain as pleasure. Their fathers' deaths under torture had gotten into their DNA.
The Colonel gave him a demonstration, stroking the side of Paco's face for a moment, then slapping him hard. Paco grabbed him and gave him a passionate kiss. Reinhold took his riding crop and struck Paco in the face several times with the thick end, prodding him in the stomach for good measure. Paco moved as if seeking the blows. In his frenzy, Paco fell to his knees and latched onto Reinhold, burying his mouth in his crotch. The Colonel kneed him in the chin and kicked him away with a boot to the chest. He lay there squirming, incapacitated, but his hand was on his organ and they were squirms of pleasure. Enrique was squirming too, because he wanted the same treatment. He looked eagerly at Anton, who just blinked.
They took the boys to a hallway with torture chambers. Reinhold shoved Paco into one of the rooms and went in after him, slamming the door.
Enrique remained in the hall because Anton was hesitating. "Come on," he said plaintively. "Hit me or something."
"I'm not really into this. I've never done this before."
"Just hit me. Cut me, make me bleed. Anything you want. Hurt me somehow. Are you a man or what?" He was almost whimpering.
Anton struck him a couple of times, and he looked happier. They went inside.
Anton had trouble imagining what to do next, perhaps because there were so many options. There were rings in the walls and ceiling, whips and knives and sharp prods, metal bracelets with spikes, leather masks and harnesses, a table with straps, a forge, an electric generator, and a rack. Enrique's eyes darted around in excitement. He seemed ready to hurt himself if Anton didn't act first. "That'll take the fun out of it for him," Anton thought, so he tried to do his best.
He told Enrique to remove his clothes and strapped him to the table. Once Enrique was naked, it was obvious that what really got him off was being cut. Anton could see the marks of previous encounters on his back and chest, and on the insides of his thighs. This became a map for him of what to do.
Electrocution was another of Enrique's fancies, and he seemed to like the two together. When Anton ran the current through Enrique's genitals, his tongue lolled out and he was happy. Anton sliced the skin along his ribs in parallel lines, shoving pins underneath his nipples for good measure. Enrique shot spontaneously several feet into the air. "Kiss me," he whispered. Anton did, as roughly as possible, yanking his head back by the hair.
Anton learned what a thrill it was to hurt someone who experienced pain as pleasure. At the same time, it was extremely frightening. What if he came to enjoy torture, to depend on it? He reminded himself that Enrique was a willing victim, someone who needed cruelty to fulfill his desire. "I'm doing him a favor," he told himself.
He unstrapped Enrique from the table, shoving him to the ground and attaching a harness. From the other side of the wall, they could hear Reinhold's commands and Paco's screams. Anton hoisted Enrique into the air using ropes and pulleys, and beat him with a leather crop. The screams from the other room built to a violent crescendo. They seemed to reach a higher pitch of agony each time, and of pleasure. Enrique trembled and whimpered like a dog scenting blood.
Anton heated an iron in the forge and brought it close to Enrique's face. Enrique tried to reach it with his lips. Anton pressed it against his armpit, his navel, his chest. Enrique struggled each time to prolong the contact.
"Do you like that?" Anton asked. "Do you want more?"
"This is good!" Enrique breathed. "Put clamps on me, too."
As he was looking around for the clamps, a loud moan from Paco tore through the air. It gathered in volume, modulating upward through several levels of pain. Anton froze in place because he could feel the pain in his own chest. After a while the cry began to die down, lasting for nearly a minute before coming to a stop.
The silence was complete. They felt a chill. Enrique strained at the ropes, eyes wide, nostrils flared, hair standing on end. Finally, he dropped his head.
Anton stepped over to him and stroked his side. "Do you want to come down?"
"Sure," he said weakly. "That's enough for one night."
The next morning, Anton sat alone in the company mess, nibbling a stale biscuit and washing it down with cold coffee. Reinhold came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. He didn't want it there, but he felt he had no choice. In the Citadel, the Colonel was boss. Reinhold beckoned him to get up, and together they walked down the hall. After a couple of turns, he knew they were headed back to the torture chambers.
"I have something to show you," Reinhold said.
Anton knew what it was. He didn't want to see it.
"Did you like your boy? What's his name?"
"Enrique. He liked it."
Reinhold opened the door to the room he'd used, and ushered Anton inside. Anton averted his eyes immediately, but he'd already seen the worst. Paco was still on the table, contorted as he'd been at the moment of death, pierced in several places by metal rods.
"Why are you showing me this?" he said in alarm.
Gently but firmly, Reinhold pushed him forward. "Go on, look at his face. He died happy, that's the point." His free hand stretched past Anton to Paco's face, which it almost touched.
Despite himself, Anton studied the face. The eyes were open, and the mouth was twisted in a grin of ecstasy. It trembled on the edge of understanding, which it seemed to have achieved. Anton found himself bending closer. There was a mystery there, something in the eyes. At the final moment, Paco had grasped something important. They were staring at a snapshot of that moment.
Behind him, the Colonel spoke. "He was made for this, Anton. It's what he came into the world to do. If he hadn't had this experience, he would have died incomplete. This is perfection for him. Not another man's, but his own." A gentle pressure on Anton's shoulder turned him away. "Who am I to judge a man's ambitions? I only realize them."
They left the room. After guiding Anton back to more familiar parts of the Citadel, Reinhold left him, telling him that he was free to explore wherever he liked. No door would be closed to him, no question would go unanswered. This was the opportunity he'd been waiting for, but he was still shaken by the look on Paco's face. He kept to passageways where he was unlikely to meet anyone, wandering aimlessly until he found Kliff.
Kliff sat in a tiny lounge at the intersection of two corridors, a cocktail glass at his side. He stared heavy-lidded into space as he puffed a joint. With him was the lizard boy, nearly naked as he'd been on the night of the cabaret, only his skin had changed from pale green to a dusky red. He spoke expressively, twirling his hands in the air, touching Kliff with long fingers as they talked. They were trading secrets of seduction, Anton guessed.
Seeing him, Kliff beckoned and grinned. The lizard boy excused himself as Anton came over, whispering, "I'm going to meet my new lover." As he strolled off, he stroked his nipples until they grew firm, with bright spots of crimson at the tips.
Anton plopped onto the couch where the lizard boy had been, dropping his head into his hands. Seeing that he was distraught, Kliff asked him if he wanted a drink.
"No thanks, but I'll take a hit off that spliff you've got there." As the smoke curled through his lungs, he began to relax. "Where are we, anyway?" he asked.
Kliff gave him a blank look. "We're in the Citadel."
"I mean where is the Citadel, exactly?"
"Wherever it wants to be. Sometimes on the Amazon, sometimes in Tibet, sometimes under the ocean. I guess it depends on Reinhold's mood. To be honest, I'm not sure if the Citadel even exists. Not in the way you or I do, anyway."
"Are you saying the stuff that happens here isn't real?" Still thinking of Paco and Enrique, he had a flash of hope.
"Oh, it's real, all right. Probably more real than anywhere else."
He felt a pang of nostalgia for his studio, its familiarity and comfort. "How long have we been here, a few days? Won't people be missing us back home?"
"Citadel time doesn't work that way. However long we stay, we'll return at the moment we left."
"How do we get back?"
Kliff looked at him in surprise. "Are you ready to go?"
"I think we've done what we came here for. Don't you?"
"Then all you need to do is fall asleep, and imagine waking up in your own bed. Only sometimes," Kliff laughed, "you'll wake up in the bed of a stranger. That happens to all of us now and then."
Anton realized he was exhausted. The tension drained out of him, and he closed his eyes. "I guess it's time."
When he opened them again, it was early morning. The scene outside the window told him he was back in his studio. He was Anton Dupree, rock star, and the revolution was waiting.
He rolled over and found Kliff's honey-colored form next to him. In his sleep, Kliff gave a low moan and threw an arm around his neck. They were both gloriously naked. They dozed together a while longer, intertwined, breathing to a common rhythm.